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What’s in a Name? Author Pseudonyms

By October 21, 2015Literature

Have you read anything by George Orwell? Robert Galbraith? Richard Bachman?  George Eliot? If you have then you have read something by an author using a pen name, a nom de plume, a pseudonym. There have been many authors who have utilised the ability to take on an alternative name for their books and some of them have been for rather unusual  reasons.

The wonderful Dr Seuss is not in fact a doctor of anything, nor is his surname Seuss.
Born Theodor Geisel, Dr Seuss lost his job as editor-in-chief at Jack-o-Lantern (college) magazine after throwing a raucous party and breaking Federal and Dartmouth laws during the Prohibition Era. Did he disappear quietly? No, he continued working at the humour magazine signing off his work using his middle name Seuss.
Skip ahead a few years and Theodor’s  first book is about to be published; Seuss decides to thumb his literary nose at his father (who had always wanted his son to pursue a medical career) by adding the self imposed title Dr, and thus giving rise to everyone’s favourite children’s author Dr Seuss.

Jonathan Swift, used several pseudonyms but my favourite is that of Isaac Bickerstaff. Esq.
 Bickerstaff came about as a result of Swift’s love of a good April Fool’s joke. He decided to publish an Almanac prophesying the then very famous Astrologer and Almanac-maker John Partridge’s death due to a ‘raging fever’. Partridge was furious  but Swift wasn’t finished with him, two months later he used a different pen name to proclaim Partridge had in fact died and so many people believed this to be true (mourners keeping him awake by howling their grief outside his windows at night, an elegy written, a headstone engraved and a undertaker called) that Partridge was forced to publish a statement declaring himself to be alive and well.

Pablo Neruda the much lauded poet was in fact born Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto.
 He was a prolific and successful poet from a very young age and his poetry had been published by the time he was just fourteen years old. Wonderful news, something for his parents to be proud of yes? Apparently not, Ricardo’s father was so furious with his frivolous dabbling with poetry that he set fire to Ricardo’s work.
Ricardo continued to write poetry but in order to avoid any further unfortunate fires he took the names of two writers Pablo for Paul Verlaine and Neruda for Jan Neruda, and so invented Pablo Neruda, taking it as his legal name later in life.

Stephen King wrote a number of short stories and several novels under the name of Richard Bachman purely to circumvent the publishing limitations placed upon authors.
He came up with the name whilst on the phone to his publisher. Apparently a Richard Stark novel was upon his desk and a Bachman Turner Overdrive song was playing on the radio, giving rise to Richard Bachman.
The interesting point about Bachman was his ‘passing’, after King had been ousted, King revealed that Bachman died suddenly in late 1985 of “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia”.

Do you recognise the name Silence Dogood? How about  Anthony Afterwit or Alice Addertongue? No? These were more than just pseudonyms, these were entire personas, dreamed up by one Benjamin Franklin who would use them for myriad reasons from the serious to frivolous, humorously examining society, spreading gossip, or exposing the flaws in conventional thought.
Polly Baker, for example, was an alter-ego Franklin used to show that women were discriminated against by the law. Baker was the former mistress of several important men, raised their illegitimate children, and was punished while the fathers got off, scot-free.

William Sydney Porter was an American short story writer whose short stories are known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterisation, and surprise endings. However I wouldn’t be surprised if you had no idea who I am talking about.
Porter wrote his stories using the pseudonym O. Henry a name taken apparently from a prison guard that Porter had become acquainted with whilst serving time in the Ohio State Penitentiary for embezzlement. Hopefully the decision to immortalise  Orrin Henry in such a fashion means that he was a decent man and a fair guard.

These are but a few of the many pseudonyms used in the literary world but they were some of the more interesting ones.
Some notable additions are:


J.K Rowling, advised to use initials in order to desexualise her name and improve her chances of being taken seriously and becoming more successful as a writer. This in 1997, and sexism is supposedly a thing of the past!

Charles Lutwidge Dodgsona  or Lewis Carroll which was a play on his real name: Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which comes the name Charles. Ergo “Charles Lutwidge” translated into Latin as “Carolus Ludovicus” which translated back into English as “Carroll Lewis” and reversed to make Lewis Carroll. This pseudonym was chosen by editor Edmund Yates from a list of four submitted by Dodgson, the others being Edgar Cuthwellis, Edgar U. C. Westhill, and Louis Carroll

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë or Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. When their writing gained fame, some critics and publishers mistakenly thought Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and Jane Eyre were all penned by the same author. Charlotte and Anne were so upset by this that they traveled through a snowstorm to their publishers. Having never met their author, Currer Bell in person the publishers were more than a little startled to find the lady Charlotte at their door!

And what about William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote under many silly pen names, such as George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Théophile Wagstaff, and C.J. Yellowplush, Esq, each one chosen purely for its ridiculousness.

Not forgetting of course George Orwell, Nora Roberts, Ruth Rendell, Anne Rice, Evan Hunter and Louisa May Alcott. I’m certain there are many more but there’s no doubting that sometimes a pseudonym is the way to go.

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